Saturday, the 14th of August

Talking Points

Comeuppance time for everyone's least-favourite royal. PHOTO: AP
  1. Virginia Giuffre sued Prince Andrew over the Epstein sex ring
  2. Apple slammed for plan to scan iPhones for child abuse images
  3. Google announced plan to cut work-from-home pay
  4. Twitter's photo-cropping algorithm found to be racist and ageist
  5. No surprise here: Messi to the Qatari-owned PSG
  6. A long-overdue #MeToo moment burst out in China's tech scene
  7. China's tit-for-tat sentencing laid down the gauntlet for Canada
  8. Wuhan tested 11 million residents as the delta variant returned
  9. Bangladesh reopened in the middle of a rising delta epidemic
  10. Seven years after abduction, one of the Chibok schoolgirls was freed

Dive deeper

Volunteer firefighters rest near Yakutsk in eastern Sibera. PHOTO: Ivan Nikiforov / AP

Both sides of the Mediterranean are smouldering. Even Siberia is alight. It's a picture-perfect smokey backdrop to the "code-red" IPCC assessment this week. In this edition, we start in Greece on the way to Glasgow.

Is everyone paying attention yet?

Much of southern Europe is trapped under a heat dome that's earned the nickname Lucifer. The atmospheric devil has sent temperatures soaring north and south of the Mediterranean. The Società Meteorologica Italiana recorded Europe's hottest-ever temperature: 48.8°C at Syracuse . As many people in the western United States learned in June and July, these high-pressure systems hover over the surface, absorbing more and more heat from the sun while suppressing cooling winds, and cooking whatever is below. If a reminder was necessary, a pair of heat domes has emerged over America, placing 200 million people at risk of heat-related injury and death.

Meanwhile, fire is consuming the world's largest forest - the Siberian taiga - unchecked. And 69 people have perished since Monday in Algeria where too fires leap through tinder-dry forests. Thankfully, at least in Greece the wildfires have been halted and contained by an exhaustive international effort. On the Peloponnese, where through history so many foreign bands had arrived carrying spears and shields, hundreds of firefighters came with axe and hose. Help was at hand from Moldova, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania. A wonderful display of transnational solidarity in the face of a crisis. If only we could see this further up the chain of causation.

In late 2015, the international community signed a legally-binding treaty to limit global warming to below 2°C, and preferably below 1.5°C. That preferability, a mere half-degree change, is indiscernible to the casual observer but borderline cataclysmic for the planet. And it is no longer an option. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Sixth Assessment Report this week. Our planet will exceed 1.5°C warming by 2050, possibly even by 2030. There can be no more pulled punches : "it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land". Once-in-50-year wildfires are now happening every decade. Once-a-decade droughts occur every five years.

None of this is new. It's all been spelled out for us in black and white: charred trees and bleached corral. Having failed to abide the best-case scenario sketched out in Paris, the world now must move faster - radically faster - to lock in far-stricter targets at the next UN climate conference in Glasgow this November. This is make-or-break. And with global pariahs like Australia still trying to put the brakes on meaningful action , we can expect, in the local parlance, a good auld rammy in Glasgow.

Musts and moonshots

But we don't need to wait until November to know what to do. The tools to rapidly decarbonise are already well understood: implement carbon taxes, reduce methane emissions , electrify the grid , and move to renewable energy sources.

Here's another simple one: ride your bike. And stop fossil-fuel companies from offloading their assets . As institutional investors, insurers, and reinsurers back away from coal mining, the viability window shrinks. The largest fossil-fuel companies will slowly shed their operations to keep stranded assets off their books. These assets – open cut coal mines, offshore drilling rigs – will be sold on to smaller, less-scrutinised companies that will run them until they can't. These fly-by-night operators will accept the risk, rinse them, and then disappear before having to shoulder the cost of rehabilitating the sites. And it is unacceptable – particularly given the amount of methane that leaks from poorly capped gas facilities globally. An activist investor group is campaigning to force BHP, the world's largest miner, to hold onto its assets and make the hard choices to close them.

There are also less orthodox methods. For instance, what say you to marine cloud brightening ? Imagine massive floating pumps (solar-powered, of course) that spray seawater into the air to create a reflective barrier between sky and sea. The engineering required to do this at scale is mind-boggling, but it is a proven technique to cool ocean surface temperatures. And it would certainly be useful at the Poles which are suffering shocking ice-loss.

One curious idea, unlikely to be addressed in an IPCC report, is putting more emissions into the atmosphere. You see we're not just pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the sky. Burning coal has also created a fair amount of particulate matter called sulphates. This is the stuff that gets caught in your lungs and kills you. But, bear with us here, it also envelops the lower atmosphere in a fine gauze that reflects sunlight back into the void. And it turns out the protective (and toxic) layer has helped contribute to 0.4°C of cooling since the industrial revolution. So, some wildcats out there are thinking of pumping even more sulphates into the stratosphere. We're not sold on this one.

And here's one that will evince outright revulsion in London: a call for rich countries to pay the carbon debts of the countries they colonised. All empires rise on the labour and fruits of seized lands – here's a historic chance to balance the scales. In the words of India's Environment Minister , the report "vindicates India's position that historical cumulative emissions are the source of the climate crisis that the world faces today". Why should India pay Britain's bill?


Taliban fighters inside Ghazni. PHOTO: Gulabuddin Amiri / AP

It's over

A weeks ago we wrote that a noose was being fitted around Kabul. Provincial capitals were under siege, but it was still hoped that Afghan air power would halt the Taliban's advance on the capital. How misguided that hope was – a month ago now seems like the halcyon days of our youth. In the interceding weeks, the Taliban have seized 12 provincial capitals - 9 of them in just six days. Chief among these is Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, and the spiritual home of the Taliban. The insurgents are now in possession of what was once a huge American base at Kandahar airfield. Further up Highway 1 in Ghazni, just a few hours drive from the Kabul, the national army retreated - to spare a city they could not possibly defend. Lashkar Gah fell to a sustained assault on the city centre. Ismail Khan's militia was encircled and broken in the western capital of Herat . The Taliban are sweeping the country with, extraordinarily, light arms and not much more.

But perhaps the most surprising shift has been the wholesale collapse in northern Afghanistan. The ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek militias that a generation earlier haunted the Taliban like a spectre have been bested. The defenders of Kunduz surrendered this week – tens of thousands had already left the north-eastern city for the relative safety of the capital. The reports from Pul-e-Khumri were just as hopeless , "Taliban fighters broke through the frontlines in several directions during the afternoon. After heavy clashes, officials and security forces abandoned the governorate, intelligence, and police headquarters. Heavy clashes are ongoing. We are deciding where to retreat now." The only option left in the north is Mazar-i-Sharif, where President Ghazni flew this week to inspire a staunch defence of the city. It too will fall.

And that leaves Kabul. In June, foreign policy wonks told us that the city could hold for six to twelve months. Now they concede it might be more like 30-90 days. The United States and United Kingdom are moving all their citizens, staff, and soldiers to Kabul international airport for a full-scale evacuation . In their wake, they leave a city teeming with internally displaced people, uprooted from the homes and cities that, after two decades and tens of billions of dollars, the US and its allies could not guarantee the safety of. The unalloyed failure to help nurture durable Afghan institutions should hang like a millstone around the necks of the architects and supporters of the West's military misadventure.

But it won't – they'll keep their jobs, salaries, and social standing. Instead, the cost of their failure will now be borne by the girls seized as Talib brides, the women denied an education, and the doomed men who were stupid or unlucky enough to have believed in, and fought on the side of, the US, UK, Australia, and other foreign powers.

Mission half-accomplished. PHOTO: Axios

We'll build this city

On Tuesday, the United States Senate wrote a trillion dollar cheque. Joe Biden's mammoth Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is now law. The motion passed with a whopping 69 votes: 50 Democrat and 19 Republican. Arch antagonist Mitch McConnell didn't just cross the floor to vote, he lavished praise on the president! A new era of bipartisanship you ask? Maybe, maybe. The plans include $550b in new spending on transport, utilities, and pollution – an outlay that will add $250b to America's budget deficit over the next decade (which currently sits at $2.54t if anyone is still counting). It's decades late, but the American Society of Civil Engineers will be ankle-deep in champagne over the news that their three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar repair backlog will start to be cleared.

Now, we'd hate to sound ungrateful in the face of all those new roads and bridges. But where's the rest of it? The $1t bill isn't even in the same ballpark as the initial $2.6t proposal that covered innovation, buildings, and in-home care. It turns out all the volatile stuff – including most of the things concerning the environment – have been cleaved off. A hefty price to pay for the GOP senators to get behind the infrastructure component . The spicy stuff has now been rolled into the (there it is!) $3.5t budget plan, the outline of which has just passed the Senate on party lines. And those debates will take months, as the budget will touch every corner of American life.

Elsewhere in the union, Texas police have been deputised to track down and arrest 52 state Democrat legislators. The lawmakers have been on the lam for weeks in a last-ditch ploy to deny the GOP majority statehouse the quorum needed to pass restrictive new voting rights laws.

The best of times

The circular economy inside the sewers. PHOTO: AP

You can't survive on Singapore Slings alone

Singapore’s land scarcity and limited natural resources have meant finding water has long been difficult. To solve this, the island nation is turning its sewage into perfectly potable water . The process works by moving the wastewater through a series of underground filtration systems and plants. It is now so efficient that it can meet 40% of the nation’s water demand, even in the dry season. Not only that, but reusing the wastewater also means it doesn’t end up polluting the ocean.

Camp Devon

This week, Max Woosey spent his 500th consecutive night in a tent - to raise money for a North Devon hospice. The camp-out began when Woosey saw the financial impact on the hospice as a result of the country’s national lockdowns. He initially thought he’d only raise £100 and spend maybe a few weeks in the tent. But, after ten tents and 500 nights, Woosey has raised £640,000 , more than half of what the hospice lost in donations due to the pandemic.

The worst of times

Land rights denied. PHOTO: AFP

When will we learn that humans are nature

Nepal’s conservation policies are being used to forcibly remove Indigenous communities from their sacred land. Over the past five decades, Indigenous people have been tortured, arrested, and even killed, by authorities seeking to clear the land. Some were given just a week’s notice to relocate from land they had lived on for generations. Their eviction has also meant that communities have had to look for new ways to survive, including through exploitative labour work on farms. Meanwhile, the Nepalese army has faced no consequences for its actions .

The foreigners Tokyo didn't welcome

This week a report released by Japanese authorities showed that a Sri Lankan refugee had died as a result of inadequate medical care. 33-year-old Wishma Sandamali complained of stomach pains for months, but didn’t receive treatment. The detention centre staff also failed to investigate the reason she was seeking asylum in Japan. She had fled Sri Lanka to escape an abusive partner, and feared returning would result in her death. While the report does detail how Sandamali deteriorated, it stops short of assigning blame or addressing the systemic issues in the country’s immigration system.

Weekend Reading

The image

The illegal dumps of Accra, Ghana, where all your fast-fashion "used" clothes end up. Accra's 'dead white man' clothing markets sort through 15 million North America, Australian, and European garments each month. 40% are deemed not worth reusing. Photograph supplied by the ABC.

The quote

"I do hug and kiss people casually – women and men, I have done it all my life. It's who I've been since I can remember. In my mind, I've never crossed the line with anyone. But, I didn't realise the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn't fully appreciate."

Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tries the Principal Skinner defence ("Am I out of touch?" No it's the children who are wrong") in his resignation press conference. The Fox News chyron "Cuomo: I'm not perverted, I'm just Italian" is an instant classic. An absurd artefact from an absurd era.

The numbers

501,008 acres

- The Dixie fire in California is the largest single-source ignition fire and the second-largest overall. It is just 30% contained.

2,700 pages

- Biden's recently-passed infrastructure bill ran to two-and-a-bit War and Peace's in length. What's the over/under on any single senator reading more than 27 pages of it?

The headlines

"Slice of history: icing from Charles and Diana wedding cake sells for £1,850" The Guardian . This is weird!

The special mention

This toilet , nothing else.

A few choice long-reads

  • The Economist takes Xi Jinping to task for his assault on Chinese technology giants. We'll see who was right at some point in the 2040's.
  • Stop trying to wring productivity out of your holiday. It's a holiday! The Financial Times on why we need to leave the to-do list at home.
  • Harvard is nothing if not "a charmed circle of white wealth". Businessweek investigates how to break it.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting